Congress Cut Its Own Budget. What Happened Next Will Not Restore Your Faith in Government.

When you cut their budgets and take away their health insurance, many Capitol Hill employees will look to the exits, and that’s bad news for anyone who wants to fix Congress.

A congressional aide waits at the enterence during a House Republican Conference meeting in September, 2013. 
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Jan. 13, 2014, 6:42 a.m.

Be­hind every mem­ber of Con­gress is a small cadre of staffers, without whom law­makers’ jobs would be im­possible. They craft le­gis­la­tion, are ex­perts in ar­cane policy, main­tain hec­tic sched­ules, and help en­sure that con­stitu­ents get served by the gov­ern­ment they pay for.

But cuts to of­fice budgets — down 20 per­cent over the past three years alone — and changes to em­ploy­ee health care, along with near-con­stant threats of fur­loughs and shut­downs, have eroded mor­ale on Cap­it­ol Hill, and more seni­or staffers are look­ing to­ward the exits than in the past, ac­cord­ing to a new sur­vey re­leased Monday by the Con­gres­sion­al Man­age­ment Found­a­tion.

Con­gress may not work very well these days, but things would be much much worse if it was no longer able to at­tract top tal­ent and re­tain the unique in­sti­tu­tion­al know­ledge that long­time aides pos­sess.

CMF, a non­profit, non­par­tis­an or­gan­iz­a­tion that provides man­age­ment con­sult­ing for mem­bers’ of­fices, sur­veyed 163 House and Sen­ate chiefs of staffs and dis­trict or state dir­ect­ors in late 2013 un­der the prom­ise of an­onym­ity. The res­ults are troub­ling.

Thirty-eight per­cent of seni­or staffers sur­veyed said it was “likely” they would look for a job out­side their cur­rent of­fice in the next year, up 8 per­cent­age points from the last sur­vey, in 2011. Mean­while, the per­cent­age say­ing it was un­likely they’d look for a new job fell 13 points from 64 per­cent to 51 per­cent, a bare ma­jor­ity.

“When you look at the land­scape of changes, these are the most sig­ni­fic­ant changes to con­gres­sion­al of­fices in a gen­er­a­tion,” Brad Fitch, the pres­id­ent and CEO of the found­a­tion told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “It’s a folly to think that those changes are not go­ing to have an im­pact on staff re­ten­tion or re­cruit­ment.”

In ad­di­tion to budget cuts, many staffers are los­ing their fed­er­al em­ploy­ee health be­ne­fits and be­ing forced to pur­chase cov­er­age through the in­sur­ance ex­changes es­tab­lished by the Af­ford­able Care Act, a change Re­pub­lic­ans pushed for polit­ic­al reas­ons. Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter, R-La., and oth­ers even tried un­suc­cess­fully to pass le­gis­la­tion elim­in­at­ing staffers’ health in­sur­ance sub­sidy, while an­oth­er GOP sen­at­or re­cently brought a law­suit to do the same.

Re­spond­ents to the sur­vey were en­cour­aged to provide can­did thoughts on life as a seni­or aide, and many said the health in­sur­ance change and budget cuts have had a tre­mend­ous neg­at­ive im­pact on their lives and of­fices. “The most dam­aging ac­tion or lack there­of to mor­ale I have wit­nessed in my 40-year ca­reer as a com­mit­tee staffer and [chief of staff] for three mem­bers was the re­fus­al not only to ad­dress the staff health care mis­take but to fix it,” one said.

Said an­oth­er: “I hired well to build a com­pet­ent staff for a seni­or mem­ber. As a res­ult of the se­quester, I’m los­ing those staff to off-Hill po­s­i­tions that pay some­times double what pay on the Hill is, with more cer­tainty and no fur­loughs. This is a hor­rible situ­ation.”

Cuts have forced man­agers to do more with less, strain­ing re­sources and pa­tience. In 2011, 30 per­cent of re­spond­ents agreed that they have “too much to do to do everything well” — that num­ber doubled in the 2013 sur­vey, jump­ing to 62 per­cent. Mean­while, the per­cent­age say­ing “job burnout is a sig­ni­fic­ant prob­lem in my of­fice” climbed 10 per­cent­age points, from 30 per­cent to 40 per­cent.

And the de­cline of in-house re­sources cre­ates a va­cu­um that can be filled by out­side groups such as think tanks and lob­by­ists, aides fear. “The elim­in­a­tion of staff’s tra­di­tion­al health care has been a com­plete dis­aster,” one staffer said. “If you wanted a le­gis­lat­ive branch run by K Street lob­by­ists and 25-year-old staffers, mis­sion ac­com­plished.” 

Of course, con­gres­sion­al aides have al­ways been un­der­paid and over­worked, but they keep com­ing back be­cause of a com­mit­ment to pub­lic ser­vice or a de­sire to have an im­pact. But there may be a point when salary and budget cuts go too far, even for the most ser­vice-ori­ented. “Is there a break­ing point at some point where Cap­it­ol Hill be­comes sig­ni­fic­antly less at­tract­ive and private sec­tor is more at­tract­ive, or an en­tirely dif­fer­ent ca­reer?” Fitch won­ders.

For any Amer­ic­an in­ter­ested in fix­ing Con­gress and hav­ing rep­res­ent­at­ives who can per­form their jobs well, let’s hope we haven’t already reached that point.

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